Ernesto Neto

Galerie Max Hetzler

Right before his exhibition at Max Hetzler, the Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto was suddenly inspired to add two photographs to his three floor sculptures. He took the film with him to Berlin, reworked its motifs on a computer there, and sent the collages thus created to a local firm that produced Cibachrome prints for him. The result is a kaleidoscopic close-up of gray and ocher patterned paving blocks in Rio de Janeiro whose individual, hand-hewn stones seem to move in waves. The titles that Neto chose for these impressions of the Brazilian city are as elusive as they are precise: The information of the skin moves through cells communication, 2004, and They say it happens through the proteins dance, 2004. In neither case does Neto comment on the urban topography; rather, his focus is on the interplay of the cityscape and the experience of the observer.

Indeed, the observer’s active participation is at the center of all Neto’s work. Art theorist Dirk Ufermann has spoken of “experience sculptures,” putting Neto in the tradition of Brazilian artists like Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. Nevertheless Neto is far removed from the “anthropophagy” of earlier generations, or the ritual celebration of a concrete physical exchange between artwork and public. Even when his sculptures are conceived for use, his works live above all in the tension between their spatial presence and the detailed texture of their surfaces. In his outsize installations of Lycra, tulle, and polymer hosiery containing heaps of spices, only their intoxicating scents turn these minimalistic objects into a labyrinth for the senses.

For a sculpture that he installed in Hetzler’s annex, housed in a railway arch, Neto used Lycra in combination with turmeric, ginger, cumin, and cloves. But while in earlier works the spices were visually offset by the white, gauzelike fabric, here they remain hidden under a carpetlike sculpture, their fragrance emanating through small fissures—an olfactory accompaniment, a suggestion of foreignness in the art context. In his works for the main gallery, Neto’s attention turned to the fantastic landscape that arises from the fabric’s various shades: A web of changing pink and peach colors spreads across the entire room, rising in many places to about shoulder height, the abstract geography recalling a coral reef. The gallery characterizes the setting as “island-animal-mountain-scenery,” and it is exactly this manifold quality that magically attracts the observer and forces him to his knees as he reaches out to feel the seductively soft material. Here the parallels to digitally altered photography become apparent: In both modes of Neto’s installations, it is the surface of an everyday hewn from urban praxis that activates the observer in motion. The playful depiction of the concrete, photographed street confronts a utopian, alternative cityscape. This also fits with the collective character of his sculptures’ production: The closely meshed assemblages of fabric were made under Neto’s supervision by the craftswomen of the Coopa-Roca (Cooperativa de Trabalho Artesanal e de Costura da Rosinha) in a favela near Rio. In this sense one can understand his works as a field for social action—certainly as a symbol for “communication,” as one of his two photographs announces in its very title.

Harald Fricke

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.